APRIL 7, 2014
Thomas Polgar, C.I.A. Officer, Dies at 91; Helped Lead U.S. Evacuation of Saigon
By WILLIAM YARDLEY
Saigon was falling and the United States was fleeing, desperately evacuating the last of its embassy staff and C.I.A. officers in the final, chaotic hours of April 1975. With the airport under siege by the North Vietnamese, helicopters landed on rooftops to ferry away Americans and some South Vietnamese.
Thomas Polgar, the Saigon station chief for the C.I.A., helped lead the effort, lifting people over fences and destroying files. Just before Mr. Polgar destroyed the cable-sending machine the agency had used to communicate, just before he boarded a helicopter himself, he took a moment to type a last dispatch.
"This will be final message from Saigon station," Mr. Polgar wrote. "It has been a long and hard fight and we have lost. This experience, unique in the history of the United States, does not signal necessarily the demise of the United States as a world power.
"The severity of the defeat and the circumstances of it, however, would seem to call for a reassessment of the policies of niggardly half-measures which have characterized much of our participation here despite the commitment of manpower and resources, which were certainly generous. Those who fail to learn from history are forced to repeat it. Let us hope that we will not have another Vietnam experience and that we have learned our lesson."
He concluded, "Saigon signing off."
The capital of South Vietnam was soon renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and Mr. Polgar, who was 91 when he died on March 22 in Winter Park, Fla., was reassigned to Mexico City. When he retired from the C.I.A. in 1981, his last few months in Vietnam continued to define a career in espionage that began during World War II.
"He really is the last of the original C.I.A. officers who started with the agency in 1947 and lived through its heyday until the fall of Saigon in 1975," Tim Weiner, the author of "Legacy of Ashes," a history of the C.I.A. that recounts some of Mr. Polgar's time in Vietnam, wrote in an email.
Mr. Polgar, who was born in Hungary and became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1943, began working in intelligence soon after the Army drafted him late in World War II.
He worked in the Office of Strategic Services before moving to the C.I.A. after it was formed in 1947. In the 1950s, he helped lead spying operations in Berlin. After spending the 1960s based in Vienna and Washington, he moved in 1970 to Buenos Aires, where the next year he helped end a hijacking by boarding the plane and talking with the hijacker. By the end of 1971, he was in Asia preparing to take over the post in Saigon.
American troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1973 under the Paris Peace Accords. The United States hoped that, with a very small military presence, several hundred C.I.A. operatives and American financial support, South Vietnam could be preserved as an independent state.
But by early 1975, the financial support had been substantially reduced and the North Vietnamese had begun a major offensive in the south. Saigon, the last redoubt of the South Vietnamese government, was under direct siege on April 29, leading to the dramatic but incomplete evacuation. Thousands of South Vietnamese whom the United States had promised to evacuate were left behind.
Mr. Polgar -- along with the American ambassador at the time, Graham A. Martin, and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger -- were later accused of not recognizing the seriousness of the new threat from the North Vietnamese, of believing for too long that a negotiated settlement could be reached, and of waiting too long to evacuate.
In his 1977 book "Decent Interval," Frank Snepp, a top C.I.A. officer who had been based in Saigon, accused Mr. Polgar of withholding important information from Washington officials, such as intelligence that made clear the futility of negotiating with the North Vietnamese. Mr. Polgar said at the time that he held Mr. Snepp "in the highest regard," but that "what he's giving is the private's view of the war."
Mr. Polgar was born on July 24, 1922, in Budapest. His parents were Jewish and moved the family to the United States in 1938 to escape Nazi oppression. He studied accounting at a business school in New York, graduating in 1942.
He is survived by his wife, the former Anna Fain, whom he married in 1977; three children from a previous marriage, Thomas, Patricia Polgar-Bailey and Catherine Jordan; and four grandchildren. His wife confirmed his death.
Mr. Polgar received numerous awards for his C.I.A. service. After he retired, he worked in a range of positions in Washington, including, in the late 1980s, as a top investigator on the Senate select committee looking into the Iran-contra affair.
Hubert Van Es/United Press International
Evacuees were helped aboard an American helicopter atop an apartment building in Saigon. Before Thomas Polgar left, the C.I.A. station chief, he destroyed files and sent a last dispatch.